Eyes to See

A couple of months studying art history at college is not much, but yet enough to see your perspectives changing dramatically. When my course started, I had a strongly Nineteenth-century setting toward the subject: the Italian high-school system focuses on humanities and students face history of art along with literature, history and philosophy. Therefore, it is tempting to read any work of art as the expression of some deep thought, as if the artist consciously laid every single brushstroke to convey a complex and out-of-grasp conceit. A few months  are sufficient to demolish a whole building of certainties. For instance, you learn that artists were not humanists and indeed not as cultured. Probably some of Titian’s Venuses are far less complex than you’d like to think and their meaning might be carnally mundane. You also get that if an artist chooses fresco to decorate a wall there might not be transcendental reasons: fresco is cost-effective, far cheaper than mosaic.

Saint Ambrose – Milan
Discovering the technical side of the subject will certainly make you more conscious. Indeed, you will also become able to make accurate comments and judgements, giving the proper attention to different details. At the same time though, I think I became a little disenchanted while progressing. For instance, it might be disappointing to find out that a beautiful statue of St Ambrose in Milan resembles a classical figure because it was actually a statue of Brutus, later transformed into the saint by switching its head. One would like to think that the classical robe is a conscious choice of the artist and that some subtle conceit is being communicated to the viewer. It might not be the case. Simply, replacing the head of a previous work of art was  more convenient. Indeed, this is easier to believe than anything else. 

Certainly, I discovered that merely looking at images is not enough to see. Being close to beautiful objects will not make us more interested, cultured or good. Their influence, I believe, is powerful but if it is a merely emotional stimulus it cannot last. On the contrary, it will fade as fast as the image we retained. On the contrary, when one knows the nature of the object, its purpose and they way it was produced, this can be greatly enjoyed by the intellect and appreciated in a wider perspective. Indeed, the work of art becomes a source of knowledge, which may be related to other objects, facts and ideas. This is an active, engagin relation. Mere looking, on the other hand, is a passive approach. Nothing is to be retained, if not the pleasure of an instant. This is not despicable nor wrong, but that is not what I am learning to do as an art historian. 

Nowadays, art is extremely accessible through exhibitions and museums. People can enjoy it in several contexts that, in the past, would be exclusive of a private collection. This is fundamental, as a wider audience can take part in this great human phenomenon. However, knowledge is required to develop a conscious sensibility. The aim is not shaping an opinion, or necessarily having something to say. Rather, it is necessary for the enjoyment of art itself. First, we need eyes to see, and we need to know where to look through them.


Saint Ambrose

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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